How to be a savvy Mac software shopper

Lex Friedman
28 February, 2011
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Apple’s launch of the Mac App Store offers another place for Mac users to buy software. But savvy Mac shoppers should know that the App Store isn’t always the best option when it’s time to exchange your hard-earned scratch for a sweet new app. Sometimes, it may be better to go straight to the developer’s Website to buy—if, of course, the software isn’t strictly exclusive to the App Store.

When should you buy software from the Mac App Store, and when should you buy directly from the developer? Here is a list of what needs to be considered when you’re buying new Mac software.


Developers can make the decision very easy for you. Apps like Pixelmator and CoverSutra, for example, are now available exclusively in the Mac App Store; if you want to buy them, it’s your only option. In other cases, app pricing may differ ever so slightly between the Mac App Store and directly from the developer’s site, since Apple requires that all prices end in .99: TextExpander costs US$34.99 in the Mac App Store, but US$34.35 on the Smile Website; BusyCal costs US$49.99 in the Mac App Store, and US$49 directly from BusyMac.

On other occasions, though, the price differences between a developer’s Website and the Mac App Store can be significant. Apple’s own Aperture 3 costs US$199 in the Apple Store directly from the company, but just US$79 in the Mac App Store—a US $120 difference. (The US$199 version from the Apple Store is a DVD copy with paper documentation sent to you. The US$79 version is a download, with only in-app and online help. Is it worth the extra $120 to have the installation DVD of Aperture 3, especially given that you can re-download the app as needed from the Mac App Store if you buy it there? That’s for you to decide.)

The savings increase dramatically if you use more than one Mac. According to Apple’s Mac App Store FAQ, “Apps from the Mac App Store may be used on any Macs that you own or control for your personal use.” Legally, you need to purchase the US$79 iLife ’11 Family Pack to use the software on more than a single machine. With the Mac App Store, however, you can purchase iMovie ’11, GarageBand ’11, and iPhoto ’11 for US$15 each—and then use them on any Mac linked to your personal iTunes account.

Ultimately, there’s just one way to ensure you’re getting the best price: research. Check the Mac App Store and the developer’s Website; the Mac App Store’s product pages usually has links to the developer’s Website.

The nod from Apple

Beyond the financial benefit, Mac App Store apps have also been pre-screened by Apple. While there are certainly downsides to Apple’s strict rules for inclusion in the store, one key positive for consumers is the extra peace of mind that Apple’s review process affords. You’ll absolutely continue to encounter crashes and bugs in Mac App Store software, but you can buy with increased confidence that the app you’re downloading isn’t a total lemon—since Apple’s reviewers have already signed off on it.

Software licenses

The Mac App Store tracks all your purchases. It can also see when an app is missing and can be reinstalled, or has an update available.

With Mac App Store purchases you don’t have to worry about license codes (since your license for the software is handled by the store behind-the-scenes), or potentially sketchy payment processors (since all your purchases go directly through Apple).

As with iOS apps, desktop apps may be re-downloaded at any time; that essentially means that Apple’s backing up all your store purchases for you. Run the Mac App Store app on any Mac linked to your iTunes account and click the Purchased tab, and you can quickly re-download any app you already own.

Pre-exisiting software

One key element of current Mac App Store confusion centres on what insurance companies might call pre-existing conditions. If you purchase an app directly from the developer, can you upgrade it from the Mac App Store, and enjoy its other benefits (like the right to freely re-use that software on all your Macs)? In a word: no.

Some developers are offering customers free ways to “cross-grade” from standalone downloads to Mac App Store versions. If that’s something that interests you, your best bet is to contact developers directly for information on their policies.

The middle man

Despite all the benefits of the Mac App Store, you should consider some potential downsides before making your purchase—particularly when the software is also available outside the store. Panic Software, the company behind file-transfer client Transmit, sells that app (and others) both directly and via the Mac App Store. While Panic offers automatic updates for direct software purchasers (via the Sparkle framework), such in-app updating isn’t permitted for apps in the Mac App Store.

Because of that, when Panic completed work on version 4.1.5 of Transmit, the company didn’t make the release available to direct purchasers right away. Rather, it waited for the update’s approval by the Mac App Store review team to ensure that the new version was available to all customers simultaneously. Unfortunately, the update sat in Apple’s review queue for three weeks, at which point Panic gave up on keeping in sync and made the direct download version available.

Red Sweater Software (maker of MarsEdit, BlackInk, and other apps) is aiming to take a different approach. In a lengthy blog post, founder Daniel Jalkut outlined a technical approach through which he could make direct-download updates of his company’s software available to valid Mac App Store buyers. That method entails its own challenges, which Jalkut highlights—most notably, the need for customers to manage multiple copies of their software separately.

If you prefer getting your hands on the latest and greatest (and bug fixiest) versions of your software as quickly as possible, you may want to avoid the Mac App Store when you can, until more developers embrace Jalkut’s model.

Shop smartly

What’s a prudent, economical Mac software shopper to do? The Mac App Store makes shopping for software easier, but can generate a bit more work for customers who want to ensure that they’re making the best choice. In general, if the Mac App Store version of the software you want is more affordable, the benefits of buying there are numerous: free and legal use across multiple Macs, easy repeat downloading, no license codes to keep track of, and so on.

Still, I’m making my own purchasing decision on an app by app basis; if it’s a regularly-updated app from a reputable developer (such as Transmit from Panic), I’m happier buying directly, so that I never have to wait on Mac App Store reviewers to approve it.

The good news is, the Direct versus Mac App Store debate isn’t Sophie’s Choice: you really can’t go wrong either way, as long as you end up with great new software on your Mac.

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